In recent weeks there has been an attempt to pitch Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party as one predicated on the votes and sentiments of the urban middle class by the ‘moderate’ wing of the party, who are running an unending eulogy for Tony Blair in the process. The basis for this argument is as follows:
1. They were mostly student champagne socialist types. The kind of people at UCL now refusing to pay rent on single rooms which at the lowest end cost £542.36 per month. Sure they could afford it if they stopped guzzling bottles of Krug of course.
2. Corbyn represents a constituency (Islington North) full of hipsters, students, and lefty lawyers with a weekly podcast about their bicycle, whilst also having been the beneficiary of an independent school education. Unlike Tony Blair who represented George Formby’s flat cap, and graduated from Barnsley technical college with a BTEC in pigeon racing.
3. Blair’s position and policy foundation was one based on realism and the pragmatic concerns of working class people, such as introducing Private Finance Initiatives to the NHS which are now crippling hospitals across the country. Corbyn’s is based on mad ideas like nationalisation of vital public services, the kind of ideas only found in peasant socialist countries like the Netherlands and France.
In short, all of this is nonsense. Unadulterated opportunism from a set of self-entitled political activists and commentators who scraped a 2:1 in political science and now believe they know the one way, the only way, to win elections.
1. Let’s look at the data:
Corbyn received 59.5% of the vote, winning 251,417 votes. The total number of votes cast in the election was 422,664. Among party members (245,520 voters) he received 49.6% of the vote, among affiliates (mostly trade union voters equalling 71,546 voters) 57.6% of the vote, and among the controversial (broadening democracy is only non-controversial when it’s in Iraq) registered supporters (105,598 voters) who paid £3 for the pleasure he won 83.7% of the vote.
That’s a lot of middle-class urbanites who joined the party, paid £3 to vote, or signed up for their affiliated union to elect a man who was relatively obscure even a few months before and help him win in every single category.
If we move the question more keenly towards how working class voters in general see Corbyn now he is leader then it is impossible to say that at this moment in time the result would be good. Broaden that out somewhat however and replace the name Corbyn with any political leader and you will get a negative result overall. More interestingly still a recent Panelbase poll found that when asked ‘Who would make you more likely to vote Labour?’ the results were Jeremy Corbyn 28% Tony Blair: 31%. Hardly a resounding victory for a three time election winner against a man who has led the party for less than six months.
The claim that most of the new members who have joined since Corbyn’s leadership are ‘high-status’ urban dwellers seems to have some veracity, yet surely this is simply a comment on the way politics is conducted in this country, and how for so long the fundamental concerns of working class people were ignored to the point at which such people felt politics was not for them? That is not going to be rectified overnight by the election of Corbyn.
We can clearly dismiss the idea that Corbyn’s rise to power was on the back of Goldsmiths art students, and in regards to working class popularity it would be a fair and measured statement to say that no one in UK politics is banging down the doors of the Rovers Return just now. If this is the best attack so called ‘moderates’ can muster then Corbyn’s stay in power will last quite some time yet.
2. It cannot be denied that Corbyn is another privately educated leader, a demographic that dominates positions of major influence in our country’s politics, but that is even truer of Blair, as such it is a moot point in comparison. Corbyn does have the notable honour of not being Oxbridge educated at least, a factor which dominates our Parliament with just under 30% of MPs having attended one of the big two in the last parliament. Given so many of those who are targeting Corbyn on the charges of being a champagne socialist are disciples of the Blairite Progress wing paid for by Lord Sainsbury, I think it is safe to say this criticism has more than a whiff of opportunism.
On to Islington North, now this is a persistent one. Very clearly this is a lie. Islington in general has one of the highest rates child poverty in the country and this is mostly concentrated in Corbyn’s constituency. Further to this, Islington is the 14th most deprived local authority in England hardly what you would call a constituency dripping in wealth and out of touch voters. The constituency also contains exceedingly expensive homes of course, often inhabited by the sort of aspirational left leaning voters Blair did so much to court, which makes me wonder why now Corbyn is a leader such high income earners are in for denunciation from the Mandelson’s of this world? Opportunism again? Surely not…
3. Here we must both understand what working class now means, if anything, and which policies such people tend to support.
As we all know the working class died out with the advent of smartphones and games consoles, so is the resplendent wealth of even the lowest earners in our society. Had Marxist advocates of redistribution in the early 20th century known class would be abolished once average income reached £26,500 p/a they may not have bothered, after all such an income could afford you a one bedroom flat in Leith, Edinburgh on a £100,000 mortgage. Assuming you don’t bother having more than one child and they are alright on the sofa after the age of six, you too can join the great British middle class.
In 2013 the British Social Attitudes Survey found that 60% of people see themselves as working class. Without investigating too deeply how people understand that term, and how much it is a cultural concept, we can at least assume a lot of people felt their hard work was not rewarding them with sufficient financial benefits to feel as if they are middle class. Once we accept this then the idea that your first concern should be attracting middle class votes, as working class ones are locked in, becomes somewhat suspect. It often felt the New Labour technique to protect their base was to roll out John Prescott and Alan Johnson to talk about how much they like the football. I can say proudly that in the opening months of his leadership Corbyn visited my hometown of Scunthorpe to speak to steelworkers whose jobs are under threat. That’s working class engagement, being there not only for those who might vote for you, but being seen to care about those who always did. If any examples of Blair doing something similar exists I would like to see them.
Immigration is where Corbyn’s class detractors have a point, even if data does suggest attitudes to this variable are more about age than class. Thus far his leadership has dealt nobly with the issue of refugees traversing Europe and treacherous seas, however – this accounts for a small proportion of the new arrivals to the UK. As a party we are avoiding immigration as a topic because Corbyn’s team has seen the same statistics we all have. Immigration was mentioned by 46% of respondents a core concern in a recent poll, making it the top issue overall. In our traditional heartlands immigration is the topic we are further away from a significant and vocal proportion of our voters than on any other issue. If Corbyn wishes to pitch himself as burgeoning voice for the ignored working class he will have to tackle this issue head on and begin a campaign to convince such voters that immigration is not only a benefit to our economy, but a fundamental part of what makes us remarkable as a country.
During Blair’s time in power and the few years that were book ended by Gordon Brown it lost five million votes. This cannot be attributed purely to the migration of Labour’s core working class vote, most obviously because the middle class has grown in that time. What we can say however is that the net effect of Blair’s time in office was to lose working class votes with each subsequent election, by 2005 on a grand scale. Where did most of these voters go during that period? The Liberal Democrats. The recession of 2008 increased the number of working class voters going Tory in 2010 – something they largely maintained in 2015, though by this time Labour had regained plenty of those Lib Dem voters. That clearly suggests there is a significant number of working class and younger low income voters who consistently move left/centre-left.
On policy we can see in the data that when asked which issues are most important to them and their family the consistent differences between the two general class blocs are:
- Working class voters deem the economy the most important issue, but they are 9% less likely to cite it than middle class voters.
- They are 6% less likely to be concerned about tax issues.
- Welfare and benefits is a concern for 24% of working class voters, as opposed to 9% for middle class voters.
- 21% of working class voters say immigration is a concern for them and their family, only 13% of middle class voters say so.
If we take the above as intuitive of some elusive working class consciousness, then I dare say the party best representing working class concerns in the last election were UKIP.
Let’s break it down to more specific issues however:
- Working class people are 10% more likely to favour government intervention in the rental sector – a policy Corbyn approves of, Blair opposed.
- 70% of working class voters, and as it happens 74% of middle class voters, are in favour of the government controlling rail prices – a policy Corbyn approves of, and Blair opposed.
- On maintaining the NHS as a state run entity, 84% in both social grades agreed. A policy Blair actively drew back, and again….Corbyn approves of.
- 68% of working class voters feel the railways should be nationalised, and 71% believe the same about energy. Again…well, you get the idea.
The conclusion here is overwhelming. On a great many issues that the general public, and particularly working class voters, tack left on – Blair tacked right. Jeremy Corbyn on the other hand appears to closely align with both the core Labour vote and a wider working class electorate on many issues of public service provision and economic policy. I am beginning to get the feeling proponents of the Islingtonian prosecco proletarian image have not really looked at the facts.
The wider point here is simple. Corbyn’s leadership should be defined and appreciated under its own merits, and not those of a declining party dogma that had its day in the sun, albeit an electorally successful day. Blair did a lot of important things to take children out of poverty and increase educational opportunities for working class kids (including myself). That cannot, and should not, be denied.
The argument that the Labour Party is a machine for the winning of elections first, and a vehicle for moderate social change second, has been lost. Not only did this thesis fail to perform in the 2010 leadership election, it was utterly embarrassed in the 2015 leadership contest (I should know, I wrote this imploring people to vote for Andy Burnham)
Both of these leaders wish to bring along a politically invested middle class, the difference is one did it by acceding to most of their often short sighted concerns, the other hopes to do so by exampling the necessity of serious social change.
Let us not forget that Blair’s New Labour was famously built around the idea that ‘everyone is middle class now’, and if they were not then they certainly wanted to be. A phenomenon I did not really recognise until I came to university and realised that Blair and Mandelson’s experience of the working class was people like me, people who they assume educated themselves for financial advancement, and not because they might be just as smart as them. In this rhetoric the student from a low income family works four nights a week to ‘better themselves’, not because it’s that or the dole. As Mark Steel pointed out “when politicians who believe everyone is middle class see vast decaying housing estates, they must think someone’s having a giant dinner party with a Victorian theme”.
Corbyn may not be the son of Fred Dibnah that I have been praying to come and lead the Labour Party for over a decade; despite this he seems to know the working class exists. When it comes to dear Tony I do wonder if the concept passed him by altogether.